Trends in the Northern Ireland labour market – Part 1

The article in the Socialist Worker Review (No. 89, July/August 1986, pp. 19-21), by Eammon McCann – The protestant working class – has kept me thinking for some years. I recalled it the other day when I was updating my Northern Ireland labour market data and working on some text. As a result of reading this article many years ago, I became very interested in the labour market dynamics in Northern Ireland, in particular, as they impact on the debate about unification and EU membership (yes, I have always been anti-EU). In that vein, I have been following the trends over time rather closely. More recently, the central place of the North Ireland Protocol in the Brexit discussions has increased the relevance of this research. I also benefitted from some very interesting conversations a few years ago with my host in Galway (forever thankful Niall), while I was visiting the Republic of Ireland on a speaking trip. These conversations filled in many gaps in my understanding of some of nuances of the issues involved. These trends provide some good background to what has been happening in a region that is undergoing significant change and how we might assess the Northern Ireland Protocol in a post-Brexit world. It also helps us understand the demise of the DUP as a relevant political force. They represent a different era. From my understanding, it is also the major economic changes that have been taking place in Northern Ireland that are more likely to influence the trend away from identifying as either unionist or nationalist or proceeding along ‘religious’ lines. A working class impoverished by austerity is a powerful solidifying force. The labour market has changed dramatically over the last several decades. In this multi-part series, I provide some reflections on these issues. This is part of a book project I am working on (more about which later).

Some background

There has long been a debate between Unionists and Nationalists about the economic effects of – Home Rule – in Ireland, and, later, the benefits of the – Partition of Ireland – in 1921.

That is a topic for another series, but, often the economic arguments are fronts for the more divisive sectarian arguments.

Northern Ireland was the result of a partition of six counties as per the following map:

On April 24, 1934, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland – James_Craig (the First Viscount Craigavon), an avowed unionist with the Ulster Unionist Party, was addressing the Parliament on the unfair treatment of the Nationalists, who were mostly but exclusively of the Catholic faith.

After claiming that he was the leader of all communities in Northern Ireland, he said (Source):

… in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State. All I boast of is that we are a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.

The slogan – a ‘Protestant state for a Protestant people’ – was enshrined in the demarcation of the six counties that was designed to ensure a Protestant majority.

Eamonn McCann – who is a journalist, socialist activist and has been a Northern Ireland politician (briefly) and is from a Roman Catholic background, noted:

The quotes from Unionist prime ministers are so well known they have become catch-phrases: ‘A Protestant parliament for a Protestant people’ (Craigavon); ‘If we in Ulster allow Roman Catholics to work … we are traitors to Ulster’ (Brookeborough); and so on.

This policy of anti-Catholic bigotry was enforced by means of repression and murder, often carried out by the official forces of the state … occasionally carried out by unofficial armed gangs and merely tolerated by the state.

The term – Rome Rule (or “Home Rule is Rome Rule”) was also a catchry of the unionists in opposition to the home rule in the C19th that persisted into the C20th.

But while the economic arguments were often hiding this sort of prejudice, it remained that the partition worked for the Protestants and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The Free State was also highly dependent on Britain for export markets and by the 1930s this spawned a nationalist movement to increase self-sufficiency through protectionist policies.

When the Fianna Fail (The Warriors of Destiny) party was elected in 1932 in the Free State, the new President of the Executive Council (that is, Prime Minister) – Éamon de Valera – ramped up the nationalist economic approach, as part of a strategy to reduce the dependence on Britain.

He adopted a protectionist approach and as an aside, in April 1933, John Maynard Keynes delivered a notable address at the University College Dublin on the idea national self-sufficiency, where he gave succour to this nationalist emphasis.

I will write more about Keynes’ attitudes to self-sufficiency in another blog post, because it would divert our narrative too far here if I elaborated further.

But his logic was worth repeating as it is very relevant today.

The problem though was that the protectionist agenda in the Free State did not deliver prosperity and to some extent the consequences of that failure has been to set the scene for Ireland to join the disastrous Eurozone.

You can trace the signing of the 1965 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement to a rejection of the nationalist economic plans of the 1930s and subsequently, the accession of Ireland to the EU in 1973, and its surrender of its currency in 2002 in favour of the euro.

In my view they are all connected and all represent national strategic missteps along the way.

I will write more about that conjecture another day as it will also divert my focus on the changing labour market dynamics.

But the relevant point here of those linkages is that the entry into the EU accelerated a convergence in labour market outcomes in the North which has changed the situation dramatically away from the tenets that were present to justify the partition from the perspective of the Protestant population.

I will come back to that.

But back to Eamonn McCann.

You can read some of his writings at this – Archive.

His 1986 article questioned “why Protestant workers cling to Orange bigotry”.

He was writing at a time when “Right-wing Loyalists increased their support by thousands and won 78.6 percent of the poll” held in January 1986.

He wrote that the phenomenon of “‘keeping Catholics out’ means preserving Protestant privilege.”

In the early days, Orange privilege meant “access to the best land” but today (1986):

… it has to do with jobs, houses, social prestige and access to political influence.

Eamonn McCann noted the Unionist workers gained the better jobs and capital maintained access to Britain.

It was also obvious that the partition left what became the Irish Free State as predominantly and agrarian economy, with the manufacturing base of the island contained in the six Ulster counties that became Northern Ireland.

Given that the Protestants in Northern Ireland were seen to enjoy more favourable circumstances, he provided this reality check:

The fact that, from the Protestant workers’ point of view, the privilege is pretty small, matters not at all. When tuppence-halfpenny is looking down on tuppence, the halfpenny difference can assume an importance out of all proportion to its actual size.

The existence of Protestant privilege in the North down through the years is not seriously denied by anyone any more.

He was referring to the fact that life for any worker in Northern Ireland has never been materially prosperous although relative to the Catholic workers in the North and most workers in the South, they enjoyed a premium as a result of their ‘protected’ status under the partition.

While, historically, Protestants were better off, the differences were not as great as you would, observe for example between communities in England or in the US.

But the perception of a difference has been an important dynamic and conditions the way the groups respond to their changing circumstances, which is what I have been interested in.

Eamonn McCann wrote that the “policy of anti-Catholic bigotry was enforced by means of repression and murder” and (in 1986) “Protestant privilege is still a fact of life in the North.”

He quoted labour market data for Northern Ireland:

1. “Average male unemployment had increased massively between ’71 and ’85 (from 10.3 to 26.4 percent).”

2. “Protestant unemployment went up from 6.6 to an estimated 18-20 percent.”

3. “But for Catholics the rise was from 17.3 to 38 40 percent.”

So the onset of neoliberalism and the period of Thatcherism damaged all workers in Northern Ireland, but the relative position of Roman Catholics deteriorated.

Occupational segregation along religious lines kept Catholics out of key jobs “in the shipyard, in Shorts aircraft factory, in the major engineering firms” etc.

In trying to understand the ‘Orange bigotry’ held by Protestant workers, Eamonn McCann makes the fundamental point:

When they attach themselves to sectarian ideas Protestant workers are entering an alliance with Protestant bosses. They are declaring that the religion they share with middle and upper class Protestants is more important than the status of worker which they share with people of a different religion. The Orange Order and its associated bodies have traditionally provided the mechanism by which this integration took place.

This is a common problem when identity becomes the basis of analysis.

So a female cleaner on poverty wages will be encouraged by feminism to relate to her female boss, who is oppressing her and reject solidarity with a male cleaner on poverty wages because he is male and she is female.

Economic class was blurred in Northern Ireland sectarianism and wage earner marched with boss or as Eamonn McCann wrote “binding workers to the boss class” and “cutting off the possibility of an alliance between protestant workers and others of the same class.”

Identity has been a major strategy to divide-and-conquer used by capital to offset any notion of working class solidarity.

And the literature from Northern Ireland is full of examples where the “Orange bosses” appeal to the “Orange workers” to offset any organised working class effort – they appealed, in part, on the basis of those small material differences between the Protestant and Catholic workers, which they maintained through the Orange lodges.

However, what was initially an advantage arising from the partition, with the industry being concentrated in the North, became a burden in the 1970s as British manufacturing started to wane and was fast-tracked into crisis by the policies that Margaret Thatcher introduced.

This had serious implications for Northern Ireland and 1965 was the last year that Northern Ireland government ran an annual fiscal surplus and provided a net positive boost to the UK fiscal balance.

The so-called “subvention” or “subsidy” – see Northern Ireland fiscal balance – has seen the British government increasingly prop up the economy in Northern Ireland, which has been in deficit since 1966.

Of the 12 statistical regions in the UK, 9 typically are in deficit and Northern Ireland is the largest.

The decline in labour market opportunities that I will report in the later parts to this series would be much worse if the subvention was not in place.

It is estimated that the subvention comprised around 25 per cent of the Northern Ireland GDP (Source)

There is, however, some contention about the size of the subvention – given that it used as a tool to offset the nationalist cause.

The other obvious point to note is that a significant portion of the subvention has been historically absorbed in dealing with the sectarian conflicts.

In more recent times, the subvention has reflected the declining industry base in Northern Ireland as deindustrialisation has taken hold.

The so-called – UK Prosperity Index 2021 – published by the London-based, think tank – Legatum Institute – on May 13, 2021, is compiled across a number of “pillars” (components).

The Report concludes that:

Prosperity in Northern Ireland is lower than the UK average. Belfast, which can be classified as a typical Industrial Heartland local government district, has lower overall prosperity than the rest of Northern Ireland (Rural Northern Ireland). Northern Ireland’s weakest pillars are Governance, Enterprise Conditions, and Economic Quality.

They say that poverty rates are highest in Northern Ireland for any area outside of London (15 per cent).


In Part 2, I will tie this background together into a narrative about the decline of the Democratic Union Party (DUP), which was the monstrosity that Ian Paisley created.

We will trace the demise of the Protestant fortunes in Northern Ireland as deindustrialisation damaged employment prospects and government policy evolved in austerity biased attacks on regional prosperity.

While, historically, the “Protestant Parliament for Protestants” behaved predictably, and the Protestant workers had the pick of the higher paying manufacturing jobs as industrialisation ensued, things have changed rather dramatically and the implications of these changes are important for understanding the current situation in Northern Ireland.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2021 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. It may be a bit early to comment on the first part of what is intended to be a series but here are several points I hope might be helpful:
    1. Stormont – the ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’ – was ‘prorogued’ in 1972. Since then the Orange establishment has no longer had the power it once had and there has been a large influx of Catholics into the administrative structures of the country so that by 1986, I would say, the imbalance of patronage that existed earlier had pretty well gone.
    2. Stormont was, like the current governments in Scotland and Wales, a subordinate Parliament. Sovereignty remained in Westminster. But the political parties that formed governments in Westminster – the Labour Party and the Conservative Party – refused from the moment partition was introduced to take members in Northern Ireland. I tried for some ten years of my life to join the Labour Party from a Belfast address. I failed. Even now, though it was forced by a court action to take members, the Labour Party refuses to allow them to contest elections. It regards the thoroughly Catholic Nationalist SDLP as its ‘sister party.’ This goes some way to accounting for the perpetuation of sectarian politics in Northern Ireland.
    3. Although it’s true that ‘the Orange drum’ was used to prevent the emergence of Socialist politics in Northern Ireland, the Communist Party (the ‘Communist Party of Northern Ireland’ – it was pragmatically ‘unionist’ in its views on partition) was powerful in the trade union movement which was actually quite militant on purely economic issues.
    4. The Unionist government wasn’t totally wicked. For example, since local authorities in charge of housing favoured ‘their own’ (and most of them were Protestant), Stormont established the Housing Trust which did quite a lot to redress the imbalance.

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